Leon loves mole. If I am buying the Mexican food, I buy him mole. If he is buying the Mexican food, he aims mole’s way. Or else he has a fish taco.
But mole occupies his brain. Why is it chocolate but not? What mix of spices brings a particular mole so entrancingly to life? Leon thinks of the Mayans and the Aztecs, he dreams of pyramids and ziggurats and sacrifice rituals and building a huge vibrant culture under the looming lee of a rapacious forest. But mostly he thinks about chicken covered in a bitter chocolate sauce wrought from ground nuts and charred chiles, cinnamon and cloves.
And so, on our recent trip to Los Angeles, it was only natural that we present ourselves at the Southland’s veritable Palace of Mole, Guelaguetza.
On this particular Saturday afternoon, the place was packed with young Latino families, birthday celebrants, cuddling lovers, silent groups of men, and very few googley-eyed gringos like ourselves. A band played, loudly and badly, and mescal was in the air.
Functioning not only as a restaurant but as a mescalaria and a store, Guelaguetza specializes in agave-based liquors and cocktails. “If it’s your first time trying it,” counsels their website, “remember you are having a distillate with an average of 48% alcohol. Give it kisses and take it slow.”
I was ready to give everyone kisses after slowly and happily imbibing two Margerita Guelaguetza ($8.50), which marry Mezcal reposado with Galliano, Triple Sec, cucumber, and tajin, the chile/lime/salt powder that is like umami to Oaxacans.
Leon was driving and suspicious of drinking mescal before climbing back in. Aiming for the prudent, he ordered a Michelada ($6), a Bloody Mary-like concoction in which cerveza is doctored lightly with tomato juice and heavily with spices. He almost spit the first sip out it was so hot, and sat grimly with it for the rest of the meal.
But enough unhappiness. There must be mole! And so I chose the Enmoladas ($13.95), three hand-made tortillas wrapped around Oaxacan string cheese, served with chicken and napped in black mole. Leon went with what the menu suggested was a “must-have” meal: the Mole Negro ($13.95), which is simply a chicken leg covered, slathered, and smothered in thick, sweet, spicy, dark, mole sauce. A sea of sauce. A saucy sea. Of sauce.
And so we spent the next 30 minutes navigating through darkness, trying to balance the non-mole comestibles on our plates with the very much mole that accompanied them, Leon occasionally wincing down a sip of his Michelada and me silently motioning the waiter for yes, please, another Margarita Guelaguetza. We had a rotten time.
But it wasn’t Guelaguetza’s fault. Everyone around us was having a roaring afternoon, feeding each other food with their fingers and ordering more regular beer and receiving massive pizza pan-like platters of tortillas or big skillets of sharable food that we gringos were too unschooled to even know to order, off-tracked as we were by descriptions of avocado leaves and “goat (tender)”.
It’s no surprise that a restaurant whose website is ilovemole.com has the stuff for sale—clean pretty jars all neatly lined up on the shelves. Leon would have none of it.
Turns out, Leon hates mole.
Mole, I Thought I Knew Ye
Few things are as disconcerting and disorienting as being convinced you like something—a kind of food, a genre of music, an old flame—and then, after much eager anticipation, you experience your desire and are left with the growing, hollow realization that you don’t like it that much after all.
I experience this with disturbing regularity. For instance, when I order a lamb dish at a restaurant. I know I don’t like lamb, but the descriptions on the menu—succulent, flame-grilled, infused and young, very, very young—are irresistible to me.
Mole is a different matter altogether. I love mole and I know it to the very core of my being. I always order it. And from Palo Alto to Portland, Puerto Vallarta to Puebla, I have never experienced a lamb-like ennui. Never, that is, until I was presented with a veritable tub of black mole, mole negro, with a lonely chicken piece immersed in it, accompanied by a couple tablespoons of rice at Guelaguetza in beautiful Los Angeles.
Perhaps it was the tomatoey, spicy beer concoction I ordered by mistake to accompany my treat. I admit I sometimes will order something in a language not my own and be unpleasantly surprised. But I know what mole is in any language—or thought I did.
As I gamely entered my mole swamp, I interrogated my taste buds: Is it too rich, is the unfamiliar flavor off-putting, is it my spicy tomato beer, is it the barely competent band? I do not know. But I do know that any mole worth its chocolate contains roughly 30 ingredients, any one of which could be the offending, or authentic, culprit.
Let it be known: I am not giving up. I just ordered the Festival of Mole bundle from Guelaguetza containing jars of black, red and Coloradito mole ($22). I am going to figure out what went so horribly wrong with my Mexican food on that warm afternoon in Koreatown. I am not prepared to have my mole lust be transfigured into lamb disappointment.